Friday, September 11, 2009

Robert Gray: At Least Give the Man a Nickel

By Brandon Ford ©2009

When you do an internet search for Capt. Robert Gray not much comes up: there is a couple of pretty good articles, one on an Oregon Pioneers Web site and another on Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia article mentions that there are four elementary and two middle schools in Washington and Oregon that are named after him. He also has a harbor, a bay, a river and a small unincorporated town in Washington and a street in his hometown of Tiverton, R.I., named after him. Not bad for a one-eyed merchant sea captain who died more than two centuries ago. But given his list of accomplishments it's not nearly enough.

Gray was not only the first American to sail around the world, but the second as well. At the time there were only a handful of sea captains in the world who could claim a circumnavigation. He was also the first American to round Cape Horn. The first American to visit the Sandwich Islands. One of the first to China. But what will forever make Gray the pivotal character in Northwest history are his discoveries that established America's claim to what is now Oregon and Washington. Without Gray's discovery of Columbia River, Grays Harbor and the Chehalis River in 1793 the United States would not have had a legitimate claim to the Northwest. The fact that he discovered Tillimook Bay in 1788 doesn't hurt either.

Four years ago, during the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark, there was scarcely a mention of Gray's discoveries. To the uninformed it appeared Lewis and Clark were the ones who established the U.S. claim to the Northwest. Some may have even thought they discovered the Columbia River by the back door. While their work cemented U.S. claims, it was Gray who made the all-important initial discoveries in the Northwest. Surely the meticulous George Vancouver would have gotten around to discovering the Columbia had not Gray beat him to it. Then we'd all be speaking Canadian.

During his lifetime Gray's discoveries brought him little renown and he continued to ply his trade as a merchant sea captain. It was on one of those voyages in 1806 that Gray died, probably of yellow fever. Forty years after his death Gray's widow petitioned the U.S. Congress for a pension based on his service in the Continental Navy and his discoveries. Part of the petition reads, “neither her late husband during his lifetime, nor his family since his decease, have receive the slightest pecuniary benefit from the great discovery … your honorable body is spreading before the world the claims of the United States to a vast territory of immense value and founding these claims, to a great extent, upon a discovery made by the energy and the perseverance of one of her citizens...”

Whether Martha Gray got her pension or not, Gray has been overlooked long enough. During the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial the U.S. Mint struck a nickel commemorating the Corps of Discovery. Doesn't Gray deserve a least that?

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